As a Christian citizen of the United States, it’s clear to me that I’m living in an increasingly post-Christian society. The majority of Americans no longer consider traditional Christian doctrine (e.g., original sin) or traditional Christian ethics (e.g., sexual morality) plausible in the modern world. Christians who don’t abandon these beliefs are increasingly considered morally inferior or even hateful.
Given the fact that the United States is a democratic republic, the beliefs of citizens affect the lives of other citizens socially, culturally, and politically. This reality makes it increasingly important for Christians to figure out the best way to conduct themselves in the public square. Many theologians can aid us in this task; in this article, I focus on Lesslie Newbigin (1909–1998) and how his example is helpful for us in our 21st-century American context.
Newbigin’s Life and Writings
Ever since I discovered Newbigin in 1997, I’ve appreciated his books (especially Truth to Tell: The Gospel as Public Truth; Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture; and Signs amid the Rubble: The Purposes of God in Human History). Equally, I appreciate his life.
Newbigin was born in England and ordained by the Church of Scotland in 1936. He served as a missionary in India for years. In 1947, he was ordained a bishop of the Church of South India. He went on to become a widely popular missiologist and public theologian; he was elected general secretary of the International Missionary Council and associate general secretary of the World Council of Churches.
In 1974, Newbigin returned to Britain, where he took up a lecturing post at Selly Oak College. His speaking engagements and publications reveal that his interest turned more fully to public theology. In particular, he challenged Western Christians to recover the gospel as public truth and to articulate a framework for Christian mission in the increasingly pluralist late-20th-century context. Newbigin wanted Western Christians to foster a genuine missionary encounter between the Lord Christ and the secular West.
Pluralism and the Public Square
Newbigin rejected the Enlightenment’s fact/value dichotomy and its subsequent cultivation of a supposedly neutral public square. For Newbigin, there was no such thing as a neutral public square, since every human being worships. Each of us has a fundamental heart orientation with accompanying convictions, and our orientation and convictions radiate outward into all we do.
Newbigin’s public-square writings focused on situations in which Christians find themselves in the minority, and he endorsed principled pluralism. Newbigin believed Christians should take a missionary posture in the public square, focusing on the message of the gospel and demonstrating its relevance as public truth. In order to do so, we must gain a deep understanding of our cultural context so we can proclaim the gospel and work out its implications in a manner faithful to Scripture and meaningful in the cultural context.
The gospel is a public truth for people of all times and places.
Newbigin wasn’t opposed to a Christian state, but he was opposed to a theocracy. He made it clear that the church shouldn’t impose gospel convictions on those who aren’t Christians. The institutional church shouldn’t directly influence public policy. Instead, the institutional church should equip individual Christians to reflect on—and act in—public life in a theologically sound and gospel-centered manner.
Can a Modern Society Be Christian?
Although Newbigin’s most influential publications are book-length treatises, a helpful encapsulation of his thoughts on Christianity and public life can be found in a brief essay titled “Can a Modern Society Be Christian?”
Late modernity can’t be reconciled with Christianity, Newbigin noted. Both Christianity and modernity are missionary faiths, and both make universal claims. For years, Christian leaders have tried to help Christianity survive in the modern world by confining it to the realm of inner experience—by domesticating it so it doesn’t make any claim on public life. But privatizing and domesticating Christianity reduces its central claims—that Christ is the cosmic King and the gospel is public truth.
Newbigin addressed this situation by reminding us of Scripture’s claim that God’s kingly rule has been manifested in Jesus. We must allow our Christian beliefs to shape our words and actions in public life, and we must allow other believers the same freedom to bring their beliefs to the public square. In other words, we must work toward building a Christian society, but not a theocratic one:
When Christians are in a position to exercise authority, they must do so on the basis of that which has been revealed in Jesus Christ as God’s purpose for human life, but in so doing they are required to give to all under their political authority the same freedom to dissent as God gives to us in the incarnation of his word in Jesus.
When Christians find themselves in positions of political power and responsibility, they are bound by the gospel to use that power in a manner consistent with the Christian understanding of God’s purposes for human flourishing.
Building a Healthy Christian Society
As Newbigin encouraged British Christians to build a healthy Christian society, he offered five directives.
First, Christians must recover the belief that the gospel is a public truth and the “norm” by which all other claims are judged. Elsewhere, he put it this way:
When the church affirms the gospel as public truth, it is challenging the whole of society to wake out of the nightmare of subjectivism and relativism, to escape from the captivity of the self turned in upon itself, and to accept the calling which is addressed to every human being to seek, acknowledge, and proclaim the truth. For we are that part of God’s creation which he has equipped with the power to know the truth and to speak the praise of the whole creation in response to the truthfulness of the Creator. (Truth to Tell)
The gospel is a public truth for people of all times and places.
Second, the church must once again become an evangelizing community. If the gospel is public truth, it should be made known to everybody. “The gospel is only known to be true,” Newbigin writes, “when it is experienced as the liberating power that it is. Evangelization is the antidote to domestication. The power of the gospel as liberating truth, as release from illusion and alienation, as light out of the darkness and confusion, is known when people are receiving it as news.”
Third, the church must “de-clericalize” theology. By this, Newbigin means the church must equip believers to bring the gospel to bear on their secular responsibilities, including their workplaces and public square interactions. He notes British believers would benefit from the teachings of the Kuyperian tradition on this matter.
Fourth, Christians must pledge allegiance to Christ but affirm the right of others to hold and express different beliefs. Newbigin was committed to public pluralism; a healthy Christian society should maximize the possibilities for face-to-face public-square conversation. Christians shouldn’t suppress or exclude those who dissent, but publicly reason with others to persuade them that the Christian vision of the good life causes all members of society to flourish.
Fifth, Christians must be prepared for debate and controversy. They must cultivate godly virtues such as courage and compassion. They must develop spiritual capacities for the invisible spiritual warfare that occurs when the gospel breaks into a godless society. They must build the intellectual and rhetorical capacities necessary to convey the Christian vision of the good life appropriately and compellingly in their society.
Newbigin knew he wasn’t a political philosopher or a political scientist. He never tried to develop a political program or agenda. Instead, he called Christians to recognize the gospel as public truth, preach it as such, and apply it to matters of public concern. Newbigin’s life and writings remind us of the value of cultivating a public theology and of raising up public theologians who can speak and act in the public square for the common good.